Next year, when the new Congress convenes, there will be countless competing priorities for new representatives. One of those issues has to be pandemic preparedness.
While COVID-19 may seem like a distant memory to some, the risks of natural or intentional spread of the disease are very much there – it’s not a question of if, but when, the next pandemic will strike. Unfortunately, the issue of pandemic preparedness has taken a partisan turn, when downplaying the magnitude of the risk or the benefits of the opportunity could be disastrous.
The risk of pandemic disease is very present. The Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics this week called on the Biden administration to declare an emergency over the spread of RSV amid rising flu cases. Monkeypox, although no longer in the news, remains a threat. In October, polio was again discovered in New York City sewage. All of this is happening against the backdrop of an increase in flu cases and an increase in hospitalizations.
It’s easy to lose focus after feeling like you’ve weathered the storm of COVID-19. Much of the country has returned to a sense of “normalcy” and the urgency of the threat is much less. Granted, our lives have changed irrevocably – the way we live, work, interact and more will never fully return to pre-pandemic normal. This loss of focus risks missing the aforementioned disease risks – each of these could become a significant challenge, not to mention the unknown unknowns, and several of those occurring at the same time could significantly stress our weakened healthcare system. .
Focusing solely on COVID-19 or “preparedness” misses the other half of the equation – opportunity. Congress must view pandemic preparedness not as an expense or an “in case of emergency” protocol. It must view preparedness as a global insurance policy that will yield benefits in the short term and, importantly, in the event of a future pandemic.
By reinvesting and restructuring the strategic national stockpile based on the lessons of COVID-19, we will be better prepared to distribute much-needed personal protective equipment and other materials that have been rapidly used during the pandemic. Funding for pandemic protection, much like families do for car, home or health insurance, will see continued reinvestment and available resources in times of crisis. Establishing and testing public-private partnerships will ensure that when the next round of vaccines or drugs is needed, we are not starting from scratch. Building surge capacity in hospitals will allow us to better prepare for a number of crises, including epidemics.
We must capitalize as much on the human side as on the active side of this insurance policy. We need to build cadres of people ready to respond in their communities in the event of an outbreak. We need to reinvest in our healthcare professionals – the doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers – whom we deeply rely on in times of crisis. We also need to look to the next generation of medical technology professionals.
Although all of these arguments have been made and agreed upon ad infinitum, little action has been taken. We need to reframe the debate beyond these essential and sensible measures. We must view this pandemic preparedness insurance policy as a global competitive advantage in this age of strategic competition.
Preparation has value as a deterrent. Man-made pandemics – whether terrorist or state-driven – are just as real a possibility as those emerging from the natural world. By building a preparedness insurance policy – and publicly – there is an added benefit of undermining the allure of a potential attack. If the adversary knows that we are resilient and prepared, but that his own population is nowhere near as comfortable, he may well think twice before acting.
China is undergoing a drastic series of lockdowns and isolations, all in pursuit of the unrealistic ‘zero Covid policy’. As Beijing makes changes, the economic impact of this program is devastating to China’s growth. While there is no evidence that the next pandemic will provoke a similar response, looking at pandemic preparedness through this lens is invaluable in reframing our own approach. Rather than viewing it as a sunk cost, we need to view it as a competitive advantage. The strength and resilience we buy in an emergency will allow us to invest today and be ready for tomorrow. If our country can weather an epidemic better than China, our economy will perform better and our security will be better assured.
It also means that we will be better able to help our allies, our partners and those on the fence. If the United States were in a better position to respond during COVID-19 to the needs of the Middle East, Africa, Latin and South America, as well as Europe, what good will that would have been- he bought short and long term? We argue that securing support for the democratic order through medical diplomacy is worth the cost of pandemic preparedness, especially in the long game of competition with China.
The upcoming Congress has an important opportunity to radically reshape the way we approach pandemic preparedness. No doubt their to-do list will be long and economic pressures mounting, but the cost of inaction and missed opportunities will far outweigh the costs of smart investment in a national insurance policy and a competitive advantage abroad.
Glenn Nye is the President and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC). Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, where he directs its geotechnical program.
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